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Berlin’s Francophiles: The allure of French culture

For Germans, French culture has a seductive allure. We meet the francophiles applying their own savoir-vivre to Berlin.

Kathrin Haberecht. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Christian Bräuer, director of Berlin’s Yorck Kinos, loves France. He’s been visiting since he was 14, when he worked – underage – in a supermarket to finance his first trip to Paris. “I was the first in my family to fly. My mum took me not to a travel agent but to the Air France office in Nuremberg, I think we were the only people who had ever bought a ticket there!”

His early infatuation may have been largely to do with savoir-vivre, but with time came an interest in French film. Bräuer credits Frances dedicated support of its film industry as a key behind its continued dominance of European markets. With its wide range of support measures, France has the most successful film industry in Europe, producing a record-breaking 300 home-grown features in 2015. Paris also has the most cinemas per inhabitant in the world.

As Bräuer says: “Film culture is part of the identity in France. It’s part of the education. If you compare Germany and France, it’s just sad.” It’s all part of a bigger picture, he adds: “French people say everything in a French way, they want us to respect their culture.” As for Germans? “We’re proud BMW owners, not proud of our filmmakers.”

The essentials

If language is the backbone of cultural identity, France is well equipped to defend it via its hugely powerful language watchdog, the Académie française, which monitors any additions and possible aberrations to what is being spoken: Franglais? Non merci! It’s a general principle to refer to ordinateurs, not com- puters for example, and possibly nefarious deviants such as the introduction of a gender neutral pronouns are castigated by no less a person than the French first lady, Brigitte Macron.

Learning the ins and outs of this linguistic monolith is the first step in coming closer to that certain je ne sais quoi of a lifestyle shored up by a strong sense of identity which many Germans associate with France. In 2020/21, just under 46,000 pupils were studying French as their second language at Berlin’s schools (around 13.5 percent of all schoolchildren, compared to 29,800 opting to learn Spanish and 1,600 Italian). Charlottenburg’s Institut Français reports an annual enrolment of about 1,200 students with numbers rising again, slowly but steadily, after the pandemic.

On a more visible level, students of French chic have latched onto Parisian Brand Rouje and its creator Jeanne Damas, whose 1.5 million Instagram followers assiduously study the “French-girl look” inspired by Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot.

Language and looks are learnable essentials. But there is something far less definable which is often behind Germany’s fascination with France: romance and passion. “I love Mireille Mathieu, Édith Piaf and Yves Montand!” says Berlin-based profiler and coach Oliver Vogelhuber. “I grew up in a very conservative, narrow-minded family in Bavaria. My father was in insurance and after my Abitur, he wanted me to do the same. Instead, I went backpacking to Nice,” he recalls from his Mitte penthouse.

Oliver Vogelhuber. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Smitten with the country of love, he decided to stay, take an au pair job in Paris and cherchez la femme. Disappointingly, l’amour remained elusive. “Back then I had long, blonde, permed hair and a moustache. I wanted to find a French girl. But as soon as I told them I was German they’d say, ‘Okay, have a nice day’.” Happily, France came through in the end. He met and fell in love with a Swedish au pair at a French class in Paris.

A move to southern Germany and two daughters later, Vogelhuber found himself newly divorced in 2008: “I asked myself, ‘Oliver, what was your first goal in life?’ It was learning French.” He began weekly private lessons and takes every opportunity to spend winters in his beloved Nice.

The food of love

A fellow Berlin francophile desperately searching for shreds of Parisian life in la capitale is fashion journalist Anna Ostrowski. She claims Fasanenstraße as her Berlin-but-let’s-pretend-we’re-in-Paris spot, but admits she doesn’t have such a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to direct comparisons. “Nothing truly compares to the Parisian buildings, the light, the atmosphere,” she says.

Thirty-five-year-old Ostrowski’s deep-rooted relationship with France started with childhood holidays in Corsica and annual school choir trips to Brittany. “The teacher was a big francophile and it was on those trips that I learned to appreciate French. I also discovered North African food,” she says. Between singing Handel and Brahms, Ostrowski had “the best pain au chocolat of [her] life”. It was also the first time she had couscous, and a galette – edibles notably absent in 90s suburban Dusseldorf. But Ostrowski does credit her North Rhine-Westphalian hometown with a more pronounced Gallic presence: “France feels more present in Dusseldorf ’s bars and restaurants. There’s so much less in Berlin!”

It’s such a tradition to have cornichons and crisps and talk about your day. I love those later hours of dining and talking.

Mark Young disagrees: an avid Duolingo French learner, Young is the 63-year-old German-American behind Rational Games, a company that teaches negotiation tactics to the best and brightest of German diplomats and politicians: “French is a big piece of my free time” says Young, who clings onto any slice of Gallic life he can get in Berlin, specifically Charlottenburg’s Cafe Manzini, which, although Turkish-owned, has enough dark wooden furniture and white table cloths to serve as a Paris-shaped trompe-l’œil. “The waiter usually gives me Le Monde when I arrive. It’s very sweet.”

Mark Strong. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

When Kathrin Haberecht moved to Lille as a medical student as part of the Erasmus programme in 2005, she didn’t expect to miss French food culture quite as much as she did when she moved to Dusseldorf in 2008. Fourteen years later, now in back Berlin for a few years, she still pines for the French apéro hour: “It’s such a tradition to have cornichons and crisps and talk about your day. I love those late hours of dining and talking.”

La baguette however, is another matter entirely. If there’s anything that unites Berlin’s francophiles, it’s a reluctance to accept this Gallic accoutrement to daily dining. “I once went to Carrefour [a local supermarket] to try and find some of that awful pre-packaged Vollkornbrot,” Haberecht admits. As for Vogelhuber? It wasn’t long before he relapsed: “At the start I wanted baguette, but after a few days I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Je ne regrette rien

While these Berliners are besotted with la République, you won’t catch them breaking out into La Marseillaise anytime soon. Mark Young thinks that unlike the Germans, the French aren’t looking closely enough at themselves: “France’s record in the war wasn’t great,” he says. “They were afraid of the Germans and capitulated very easily.” While the French remain traumatised by the role of the collabo Vichy regime that cooperated with the Nazis during WWII, the debate on how to celebrate and define French language, culture and national identity has become a viciously contested political trope in the run-up to Presidential elections in April, with many on the right seeing le wokisme as a deviant American import that could undermine French values.

People are more playful and have a more passionate take on life, there you can enjoy that nice flirting – which you’d never find here

Immigration is another lightning rod of dissent. “Racism is also of course a big problem in France today,” Haberecht says – a statement supported by recent polls showing the far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, known for his islamophobic and anti-immigrant politics, as a potential threat to Macron.

Compare that to Germany and what you get, says Anna Ostrowski, is history: “Germans take a very critical view of themselves. You learn at school that there is not much to be proud of.”

Anna Ostrowski Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

For Bräuer, it all comes down to a culture prone to big emotions. “French people are overall more emotional – for better and for worse,” he says. “In many ways France deserves its reputation as the country of love. People are more playful and have a more passionate take on life, there you can enjoy that nice flirting – which you’d never find here, Germans are too serious,” he says, adding he had the best time as a gay man in France. “Meanwhile, it’s a very polarised society, and although the French had gay marriage before us, they were really passionate on both sides of the barricades – with huge protests. The Church and the ultra-conservative Right were very vocal against it, and still are.”

While she was pregnant, Ostrowski looked to her beloved France for some guidance to fast-approaching motherhood, reading French books on parenting. After the birth of her daughter, the potential glamour of parenting was quickly debunked. “French children go to kindergarten very young, don’t sleep in their parents’ bed and only get tiny desserts. It all sounds chic in theory, but then you have a child and it’s just all over the place.”

À la Mode

While Ostrowski remains fascinated by the “French-girl look”, newly popularised by fashion forwards such as Caroline de Maigret, she also sees its flaws. “It’s always very thin women with blonde or brown hair who are considered to have the look. There’s not much diversity. And if you actually go to Paris, there is so much diversity!” But she does believe that French fashion is less averse to the ageing process. “I feel that in Paris, women have the right to age beautifully. They are very understated.” She’ll admit though that this attitude might just be based on the low-maintenance myth. “These women probably all tried very hard in the morning to achieve their look. We all know that looking natural can also take a lot of time!” she laughs.

I feel that in Paris, women have the right to age beautifully. They are very understated

Apparently, French philosophical rigour, debate culture and intellectualism are not part of the mainstream Francophile package. According to Mark Young, the French are deliberately obscure: “The French have a very complicated way of thinking. They aren’t clear and use very cloudy language to keep people guessing. It’s deliberate: a supposed to be like that, it’s a way to keep people out.” This feeling of intellectual exclusion is something that Vogelhuber experienced as a twenty-something, when he first grappled with French Existentialism. “In my family, you were born, earned money and then you died. And suddenly my teacher was telling us about all of these ideas I’d never heard of before, but they made sense to me.”

Eager to learn more, he purchased Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le néant – or what Vogelhuber calls, “Le néant und das Dingsbums”: “I started to read but I couldn’t do it! I wanted to know more but I just wasn’t clever enough!”

The French enlightenment philosopher Descartes may have tortured himself with the knowability of existence. Vogelhuber, who plans to retire to Nice, has a more relaxed take on things: “For me, life is like a carpet. I have been weaving the carpet of my life forever and I’m still weaving in the French part. When I go to Nice now, I sit on the blue deck chairs they have on the Promenade des Anglais, I look out at the sea and I have the same happy feelings I had years and years before.”